GREATER focus must be placed on optimising genetic gain through the accurate selection of non-visual profit-driving traits, in order to ensure that the northern Australia’s beef industry is equipped to be profitable and meet evolving social and environmental pressures.
That’s the view of 2019 Nuffield Scholar and Western Queensland beef producer, Rebecca Burnham, who investigated how modern technologies could be better utilised to increase measurement above the 15 per cent of bulls currently presented with breeding values in northern Australia.
Ms Burnham’s Nuffield study was supported by the Yulgilbar Foundation.
Travelling across Colombia, Kenya, Qatar, New Zealand, Canada, Eastern Europe, the United States, Brazil, Ireland, Italy and Australia, Ms Burnham visited producers, researchers, universities, private research stations and genetic centres to identify and observe where significant genetic gains in beef were achieved.
In Kansas, US, she visited Gardiner Angus Ranch, where the importance of employing a holistic approach to genetic optimisation for beef producers became clear.
“Every animal on the Gardiner ranch is the result of Artificial Insemination or an Embryo Transfer,” she said. “The business is currently performing around 2500 embryo transfers per year.”
Although Gardiner Ranch had pioneered the exclusive use of AI for all farm reproduction since 1964, it wasn’t until the business implemented genetic analysis, like Australia’s Breedplan, in 1980 that genetic improvement was seen.
“This allowed them to optimise selection on-farm, and then accelerate genetic gain through reproductive technologies,” Ms Burnham said.
A well-established breeding enterprise, Gardiner Ranch now applies high selection pressure by harvesting eggs from genetically-superior females, adding genotyping to the genetic analysis to ensure high selection accuracy, to multiply younger superior genetics. All breeders older than four years of age are sold, to reduce the generation interval.
“These advancements in production have all been done with accurate measurement, genetic evaluation and by continually selecting using breeding values and selection Indexes to maximise business profits, and ensure accurate genetic evaluation by utilising all the genetic selection tools,” Ms Burnham said.
In her report, Ms Burnham said genetic selection was never based on one single attribute and the use of selection Indexes ensured balanced selection to improve accuracy and maximise productivity and profitability.
“Globally, I noticed commonalities in production enterprises when it came to genetic gain. These were: clearly defined long-term breeding objectives, excellent herd and grazing management, ongoing animal phenotypical measurement, genotyping, genetic evaluation, economic selection Indexes, and the combined use of all selection tools,” she said.
With the significant challenges facing northern Australia’s beef industry, it was imperative that seedstock producers consider emerging modern technologies that aid in measurement and enable more accurate selection for genetic gain and increased returns, Ms Burnham said.
“As many of the genetic profit-driving traits in the beef industry are hard to measure and not visible to the eye – such as fertility, eating quality, feed efficiency, carcase yield and heat resistance, the integration of modern technology for animal phenotypic and genotypic measurement will be central to collecting data in northern Australia required to improve genetic selection.”
This could involve implementing walk-over-weighing systems, birth alerts, and Smart Tags for example.
Travelling to Jacarezinho, a 6000 breeder Nelore operation in Brazil, the possible utilisation of facial and video recognition for animal trait collection was discussed.
“This shows great potential as a cheaper and more accurate alternative to tags,” Ms Burnham said.
“Video recognition research in Brazil is also trialling the measurement of animal structure in Nelore cattle, aiming at streamlining the current subjective nature of assessment between humans for the Special Certificate of Identification and Production (CEIP) program, which attests to the genetic quality of an animal.”
“If they can be cost-effectively implemented on-farm, technologies like this will not only enhance measurement for improved genetic selection, but also help solve labour and expense challenges to increase measurement in northern Australian seedstock businesses.”
Optimised genetic selection
In her report, Ms Burnham said to optimise genetic evaluation and selection, industry needed to place consideration into combining all platforms – phenotype, pedigree and genotype – to produce a high breeding value.
“Continual physical measurement is critical for genomics and is currently being achieved through a number of research projects and a small group of committed seedstock producers in northern Australia,” Ms Burnham said.
In the past decade for example, there had been strong uptake of genotyping to identify homozygous poll animals, which had increased the number of polled animals for sale in the north.
“Genomics now provides estimates of genetic potential on cattle with no prior measurement, offering a large opportunity for our northern beef sector,” she said.
Ms Burnham said optimised selection would not only facilitate increased profitability and sustainability for the Australian beef industry, but would also enhance consumer trust by proactively addressing environmental and welfare concerns.
In New Zealand, she was able to visit Rissington Farms, where the operators had been able to genetically select their Savanna breed cattle for the slick gene which enhances heat resistance.
“More than 50 percent of the world’s cattle population is maintained in hot environments. By selecting for heat tolerance, the beef industry is able to provide a viable and effective strategy to mitigate the negative effect of heat stress on beef production and possible climatic concerns.”
“It is becoming increasingly important that the beef industry is proactive in demonstrating accountability and transparency as consumers play a greater role in decision-making around standards and expectations,” Ms Burnham said.
“Greater optimisation of genetic selection presents a significant opportunity for the beef industry to select cattle that not only survive but thrive in northern Australia’s conditions, and drive greater returns to the sector.”
Ms Burnham said that globally, seedstock protein producers in all livestock sectors were showing that the use of genetic economic selection Indexes could optimise genetic gain, address environmental and consumer requirements, and enhance profitability.
“To adapt to changing market conditions and challenges facing northern producers, it’s critical that modern technologies are considered to increase genetic measurement to optimise selection and enhance profits in the commercial beef industry,” she said.
- Rebecca Burnham presented her research findings at a Nuffield Australia webinar on Thursday, 18 February. Click here to view here final report.